Postcard views of Notre Dame

SacredHeart: Exterior of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart circa 1920

Sacred Heart: Interior view of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart circa 1910.

""A heaven-pointed finger of the Hand of God...
That points at evening to the changeless stars...
There is a solace in their constancy." 

-from The Dome, 1925 


The following description of the history of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart can be found in Damaine Vonada's wonderful guide book Notre Dame The Official Campus Guide (available in the "Books" section) 

From The Notre Dame Campus Guide:

There are three things that you need to keep in mind about this Basilica. (1) it is a work of art; (2) it is a landmark that has become both a place of pilgrimage and a tourist attraction; and (3) it is first and foremost a house of God. This is Notre Dame's mother church, the campus's premier place of worship, and the greatest physical manifestation of the faith that underpins the university.

The Basilica is used primarily to fulfill the spiritual needs of the Holy Cross community and Notre Dame's students, but it also serves as the home of a local congregation, Sacred Heart Parish.

Although the Basilica's name refers to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was an object of intense devotion in the nineteenth century, the Basilica's origins go back more than 300 years to a crude log chapel that missionary Claude Allouez built beside St. Mary's Lake in the 1680s. In the 1840s, Father Sorin arrived at the site to begin his pastoral mission and built a church that he dedicated to the Sacred Heart. The university soon outgrew that "Old Church" and in 1868, Sorin ambitiously began the Gothic structure that you now see standing just west of the Main Building. The church took more than 20 years to complete, but when it was finished, Notre Dame had a lofty spire next to its new Golden Dome. Then as now, they form a powerful pair of symbols-the Dome signifying the university's academic mission and the spire proclaiming its faith.

Father Sorin designed the church in conjunction with Rev. Alexis Granger, C.S.C., an unassuming Frenchman who was then the parish pastor, and Irish-born Brother Charles Borromeo Harding, C.S.C., the hard-working, largely self-taught campus builder. Their Gothic Revival design definitely reflects the French taste of Notre Dame's founding father, and because the church was constructed with local materials-legend has it that the interior columns contain tree trunks- it was nicknamed the "Cathedral of the Prairie." Historically as well as religiously, Sacred Heart occupies an inimitable place, witnessing the funerals of Sorin, Rockne, and sculptor Ivan Mestrovic; the prayers of an Italian cardinal who would become Pope Pius XII; untold numbers of baptisms, weddings, communions, and ordinations; and the tens of thousands of visitors who come every year to experience the beauty and holiness of this place. The church underwent its most recent restoration and renovation in the 1980s, and in 1992, the Vatican recognized Sacred Heart's historical significance and importance as a center of worship by designating it a minor basilica. This is a rare honor, for only about 40 churches in the United States have been accorded basilica status.

You'll find the Basilica of the Sacred Heart anchoring the northwest corner of the quad. It was constructed from bricks in the shape of a Latin cross with complex but perfectly balanced Gothic features-spires and spirelets; stained glass, tripartite, and roundel windows; curved apsidal chapels-that give it the inspired look of a medieval cathedral. Sacred Heart's main entrance is on the south facade at the base of the tower supporting its conspicuous central spire. The peak of that soaring spire is topped by a gold cross, which appears rather small from the ground but is actually 12 feet high. Above the doors, you'll notice the papal coat of arms (a triple crown tiara over the keys of St. Peter), which indicates the church's status as a basilica. Sacred Heart's coat of arms is displayed just left of the doors: a striped umbrellino (a papal symbol) over the cross and anchors (a Christian symbol of hope) that signify the Congregation of Holy Cross.

The louvered arches you see on the tower enclose 24 bells, 23 of which comprise the oldest carillon in the United States. Imported from France and originally installed in a tower in front of Old Church, the carillon was yet another of Father Sorin's projects. The carillon bells were blessed in 1856, and each of them was given a name-Mary of the Nativity, Mary of the Seven Dolors, etc.-pertaining to the life of the Mother of God. For years, the sound of the carillon playing the 'Alma Mater" meant "lights out" in the dormitories. Although today's students can stay up all night if they wish, the "Alma Mater" is still played every evening. The final bell, which is one of the grandest in the United States, was blessed in 1888 during Father Sorins Golden jubilee. Named for St. Anthony of Padua, it is an immense bass bell, or bourdon, more than seven feet tall and weighing 15,400 pounds. In comparison, the nation's celebrated Liberty Bell is about one-third that height and weighs just over 2,000 pounds. The sonorous tones of the St. Anthony bell can be heard for miles, but it is rung only on great and solemn occasions. Many believe that if you pray to St. Anthony while the bell is sounding, your petition is sure to be granted.

On Sacred Heart's east facade, the Memorial Door has become famous for its motto, "God, Country, Notre Dame." It honors the men of Notre Dame who died in World War I and was the precursor of the Clarke Memorial Fountain on North Quad. The doorway's Gothic trappings also anticipated the South Quad, for it was designed by Francis Kervick and Vincent Fagan, the university architects whose mastery of the style produced many of the wonderful buildings erected there in the 1920s and 1930s. The armor-clad statues flanking the doorway were done by art professor Rev. John Bednar, C.S.C. They represent two defenders of the faith: Joan of Arc, patron saint of France, and Michael the Archangel, patron saint of soldiers. Just inside the doorway, You'II notice a light fixture made from an army helmet that was worn by Rev. Charles O'Donnell, C.S.C., who served as a chaplain during World War I and later became president of Notre Dame.

Although the exterior of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart is certainly impressive, it does not even begin to prepare you for the majesty and opulence of the interior. The size of the church- 275 feet long and 114 feet wide-is really rather modest, but it has high, vaulted ceilings-they reach to 60 feet-complemented by pointed lancet arches and towering columns that constantly lead the eye upward to give the illusion of great space. Blue and gold, which are traditionally associated with Mary, are the predominant colors, and given the profusion of stars and angels that adorn the ceiling, the effect is, frankly, heavenly. Sacred Heart is absolutely chock-a-block with paintings, sculptures, stained-glass windows, and other works of art that were intended not only to beautify the church but also to instruct worshippers. Scholars have intensely studied these treasures, and numerous books and papers have been written about their religious scenes and symbolism. It would probably take you days to adequately see, let alone fully experience, the Basilica's artistry. Informative guided tours are available, and you can arrange for one by calling 219/1631-7329. However, if you'd like to visit Sacred Heart on your own, there are certain "must-sees" that you'll find enjoyable as well as enlightening.

The marvelous stained-glass windows were designed and produced in the studios of the Carmelite nuns in Le Mans, France, and they were installed over a period of 15 years, beginning in 1873. These windows are now considered priceless because comparable stained-glass windows in European churches were all destroyed during World Wars I and II. Altogether there are 116 windows consisting of more than 1,200 individual panels, and in the late 1980s, they were all repaired and reconditioned by the Conrad Schmitt Studios as part of Sacred Heart's restoration. Dozens of saints, apostles, theologians, and biblical scenes are portrayed in the windows. Many of the Figures are life-sized, and you'll notice they were so carefully crafted that the faces are always whole and never marred by the leading. Two of the windows in the west transept are particularly noteworthy: one on the north side depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus that inspired the Basilica's name and another on the south side showing Father Sorin presenting the building to God.

Both the murals on the walls and ceilings and the Stations of the Cross are the work of Luigi Gregori, Notre Dame's first artist-in-residence. Father Sorin recruited Gregori from the Vatican, and the artist was supposed to work at Notre Dame only a few years. However, he succumbed to Sorin's power of persuasion as well as the lure of Notre Dame's building boom and stayed for 17 years. Gregori's luminous Exaltation of the Holy Cross graces the ceiling of the Lady Chapel, while the imposing murals of the east and west transepts celebrate events in the life of Mary. In the sanctuary, the ceiling above the altar portrays the Hebrew leaders Isaiah (scroll), David (harp), Jeremiah (scroll) and Moses (tablet) from the Old Testament, plus the evangelists Matthew (angel), John (eagle), Luke (ox), and Mark (lion) from the New Testament.

The Basilica has three altars. Walking north from the main entrance, the first one you'll come to is the Altar of Sacrifice, followed by the Main Altar, and finally the Bernini Altar in the Lady Chapel in the rear of the Basilica. The contemporary-style Altar of Sacrifice was installed after Vatican II called for increasing lay participation in the liturgy. It faces the congregation and was constructed from old pews and choir stalls. Father Sorin had the French Gothic Main Altar made in Paris. A piece of architecture as well as art, this exquisite golden altar represents the New Jerusalem with turrets, battlements, gates, walls, and doors. It is topped by a beautiful spire and the Lamb of God. The third altar is believed to have been made by students of Rome's famed master of the Baroque, Giovanni Bernini. Also covered in gold, this elaborate altar is known for its flowing, dynamic lines. The "pelican at her piety" displayed on its base is an image commonly used to represent Christ in religious art.

Seven side chapels are located north of the Basilica's transepts, and the Lady Chapel is probably the most renowned, primarily because of the eye-catching Bernini Altar and the handsome Madonna and Child statue prominently displayed above it. A Lady Chapel dedicated to Mary was a common feature in Europe's Gothic cathedrals, and it was also copied in this country at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Because of Father Sorin's great devotion to the Virgin, the Lady Chapel was completed in 1888 for the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination. This chapel is now often used for small weddings and funerals and is especially lovely at Christmas time, when it is elegantly decorated with trees and lights to celebrate the Nativity.

Just west of the Lady Chapel is the Chapel of Holy Angels with the celestial spirits shown in its stained-glass windows.

Next on the Basilia's west side is the Baptismal Chapel. Dedicated to Our Lady of Victories, the chapel contains Sacred Heart's original, custom-made baptismal font, which was installed in 1871. It's followed by the Holy Cross Chapel, where John Cardinal O'Hara, C.S.C., is entombed. The university's president from 1934 to 1940, he imported noted scholars as visiting professors and recruited European intellectuals fleeing the Nazis to come to Notre Dame. Father O'Hara was the first member of the Congregation of Holy Cross to be named a cardinal, and in tribute, the class of 1928 has traditionally placed red roses in this chapel. The sculpture near the front of the chapel is Return of the Prodigal Son by Ivan Mestrovic.

On the east side of the Basilica, the Reliquary Chapel is located to the right of the Lady Chapel. It holds relics of the Twelve Apostles, a piece of the True Cross, and numerous other objects of veneration. When Sacred Heart was built, it was customary for churches to have a figure representing a saint, and here it is St. Severa. A young martyr from the third century, her bones are contained in lead boxes beneath the head and feet. Next comes the Brother Andre Chapel, which is also called the Immaculate Conception Chapel. In addition to windows depicting the life of Mary, it contains a statue of Blessed Brother Andre Bessette, C.S.C., who was beatified in 1982 for his work among the sick and needy in Montreal. The statue was done by Rev. Anthony Lauck, C.S.C., professor emeritus of art at Notre Dame. Finally, the Holy Family Chapel honors the life of St. Joseph and is the site of Ivan Mestrovic's masterpiece, The Descent from the Cross. The sculptor did the sketches for this magnificent pieta while he was a political prisoner of the Nazis and completed the sculpture in 1946. Made from white Carrara marble, it is a compelling, compassionate work; Joseph of Arimathea supports the body of the dead Savior, while the Blessed Mother and Mary Magdalene grieve. Mestrovic used his own face for Joseph of Arimathea, and his wife Olga was the model for the women. The pieta was exhibited at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art before going on display at Sacred Heart in 1955. This massive-12 feet tall and weighing seven tons- sculpture was transported by a flatbed trailer truck across the highways and byways of several states, and when it arrived, part of the Basilica's wall had to be removed in order to get it inside.

Before you leave Sacred Heart, do take a few minutes to visit its museum, which is in the Sacristy where sacred vessels and clerical vestments are kept. The museum is one of those proverbial "best-kept secrets," and it holds artifacts pertaining to the history of Notre Dame as well as the Catholic Church in America. Among the many rare and fascinating items are the mortar and pestle that Gregori used to mix his paints, a tiara and chalices from Pope Pius IX, a cassock that belonged to Pope Paul VI, and a six-foot- high processional cross presented to Notre Dame by Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie.

Liturgically and administratively, Sacred Heart is actually two churches. Under the direction of the Campus Ministry, the university has the primary use of the main church, while the members of Sacred Heart Parish worship in the historic Crypt in the Basilica's basement. The parish offices are housed behind the Basilica in the Presbytery; built in 1869, this historic structure was Father Sorin's base of operations when he headed the Holy Cross order, and he died there in 1893. Masses are said daily in both the Crypt and the Basilica, and when the university is in session, there is Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in the Lady Chapel on Friday afternoons. Schedules are published in the Observer, This Week, and the Sacred Heart bulletin, which you can obtain in the Basilis's vestibule. For more information, call Campus Ministry, 219/631-7800; the Basilica, 219/631-8463; or Sacred Heart Parish, 219/631-6861. Visitors are welcome at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, but you will not be able to tour it during masses and other ceremonies.

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